An age-old question has been: What was nailed to the cross? What was the "handwriting of requirements that was against us"? Sometimes it's easier to know what this doesn't mean than it is to explain what it does mean.
Most of us live near roads that are notorious "ticket zones," where police officers are known to hide out and catch speeders. For those who are caught speeding, their only hope is that the officer would give them a break and not write a ticket.
It helps if the person speeding says, "Officer, you're right, I was speeding. I'll pay closer attention to the speed limit and try not to speed anymore." If the officer feels that the person is sincere, then he might only issue a warning.
But what if the driver were to follow up with: "Officer, not having to pay the penalty for my traffic violation isn't enough. I expect you to take down the speed limit sign so that I won't ever be guilty of speeding again!" The officer would most likely respond to such brashness by issuing the maximum penalty for speeding.
The Antinomian View of Colossians:2:14
As far-fetched as the driver's reasoning may sound, many of us applied this type of logic to the Scriptures before our conversion. We defined God's mercy as both the forgiveness of our transgressions and the removal of the law that we transgressed. We probably used Colossians:2:14 to support this conclusion.
"...having wiped out the handwriting of requirements that was against us, which was contrary to us. And He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross" (emphasis added throughout).
Antinomian religious teachers typically interpret this verse to say that God's law is the "handwriting" that has been "wiped out" and "nailed to the cross." The elimination of the written law is sufficient for most antinomians. However, there are extreme cases where people also attempt to abolish the alleged instinctive law within the conscience.
Notice The Wycliffe Bible Commentary: "A handwriting is a certificate of debt...and presumably refers to the written Mosaic law. For Gentiles it may include also the law to which their consciences assent (cf. Rom:2:14-15; Ex. 24:3; Eph:2:15). This obligation which, unfulfilled, stood against us was discharged on his cross" (notes on Colossians:2:14, 1962, Biblesoft).
It's as if they insist that a Christian should view the law in any form as abolished. Yet, Wycliffe elsewhere speaks of God's law in a positive light, thus contradicting its comment on Colossians:2:14: "Gentiles reacting correctly to this standard are thus not altogether without law. They are obedient doers of the law which God put in their hearts" (notes on Romans:2:12-16). So the most popular definitions of Colossians:2:14 leave no clear standard to live by, except for an alleged instinctive law or just raw instincts alone.
But if we let Scripture interpret itself, we come to a different conclusion. The previous verse specifies what Christ's death blotted out: "And you, being dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He has made alive together with Him, having forgiven you all trespasses" (Colossians:2:13).
"Our trespasses" are the problem that's addressed here—not the laws that were being trespassed. Paul did not suddenly change the subject in the next verse.
The Greek for "wiped out" (exaleipho) means, "to smear completely...to obliterate" (W.E. Vine, Merrill F. Unger and William White, Vine's Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words, Logos Library System, 1997, "blot out"). This Greek word was used in Acts:3:19—"Repent therefore and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out [exaleipho]."
God hates our sins, the transgression of the law. Therefore He provided a means by which they can be obliterated. Conversely, mankind generally abhors God's law, "Because the carnal mind is enmity against God; for it is not subject to the law of God, nor indeed can be" (Romans:8:7). That is why many man-made religious beliefs, which seek to obliterate the law, exist. Yet why would one need to repent (Acts:3:19) of transgressing a law that God "wiped away," which is therefore nonexistent?
Paul was not introducing new terminology when he mentioned the wiping out of transgressions (not canceling the law that we transgressed). The Old Testament also associates the Hebrew for "wiped out, blotted out, abolished," machah, with trespasses.
Isaiah:43:25 says, "I, even I, am He who blots out [machah] your transgressions for My own sake; and I will not remember your sins."
David writes in Psalm:51:1, 9: "Have mercy upon me, O God, according to Your lovingkindness; according to the multitude of Your tender mercies, blot out [machah] my transgressions...Hide Your face from my sins, and blot out [machah] all my iniquities."
He wrote this song/prayer after his sin with Bathsheba. He wasn't saying, "Have mercy, O God, and abolish the law against adultery, so I can never be condemned for this sin again."
There's a unique ceremony in the Bible that illustrates what God blotted out. It's the ceremony for a woman suspected of infidelity.
The priest says, "But if you have gone astray while under your husband's authority, and if you have defiled yourself and some man other than your husband has lain with you..." God continues, "Then the priest shall put the woman under the oath of the curse, and he shall say to the woman—'the LORD make you a curse and an oath among your people, when the LORD makes your thigh rot and your belly swell; and may this water that causes the curse go into your stomach, and make your belly swell and your thigh rot.' Then the woman shall say, 'Amen, so be it.' Then the priest shall write these curses in a book, and he shall scrape them off [machah] into the bitter water. And he shall make the woman drink the bitter water that brings a curse, and the water that brings the curse shall enter her to become bitter" (Numbers:5:20-24).
The New American Standard Bible says, "Write these curses on a scroll, and he shall wash them off" (verse 23). Notice that the priest didn't wipe away the law that the adulterer transgressed. Similarly our High Priest, Jesus Christ, blotted out the curses against His wife, who was guilty of spiritual adultery. However, unlike the priest in the Old Testament, Christ drank the bitter water. He knew that the bitter water of these curses would indict us and bring a curse upon us. Therefore, He drank it for us.
God inspired the Hebrew word for "blot out" to be used in association with unrepentant sinners.
"So the LORD said, 'I will destroy [machah] man whom I have created from the face of the earth, both man and beast, creeping thing and birds of the air, for I am sorry that I have made them'" (Genesis:6:7).
"Then Moses returned to the LORD and said, 'Oh, these people have committed a great sin, and have made for themselves a god of gold! Yet now, if You will forgive their sin—but if not, I pray, blot me out [machah] of Your book which You have written.' And the LORD said to Moses, 'Whoever has sinned against Me, I will blot him out [machah] of My book'" (Exodus:32:31-33).
"Furthermore the LORD spoke to me, saying, 'I have seen this people, and indeed they are a stiff-necked people. Let Me alone, that I may destroy them and blot out [machah] their name from under heaven; and I will make of you a nation mightier and greater than they'" (Deuteronomy:9:13-14).
The expression "blot out" speaks to the removal of sin or sinners, not the removal of the law. God wants everyone to experience freedom from the "curse of the law" (Galatians:3:10, 13), the curse for transgressing the law—i.e., death. However, God will ultimately "blot out" those who refuse to repent.
Now let's consider another key word in Colossians:2:14, "handwriting." This has also led many to assume that God's law is the subject here. God wrote the law out with His own hand (Deuteronomy:9:10), so is it His law Paul refers to in this verse as being wiped out?
The Greek word for "handwriting," cheirographon (khi-rog'-raf-on), refers to a handwritten "legal document or bond" (James Strong, New Strong's Dictionary of Hebrew and Greek Words, 1997, Logos Library System). Interestingly, the New Testament writers did not use this Greek word anywhere else.
Vine's dictionary includes a very good write-up on it:
"In illustration of this, look at Col:2:14, which has several words which are found in the papyri; and take one of these, Cheirographon, 'handwriting.' This means a memorandum of debt, 'a writing by hand' used in public and private contracts, and it is a technical word in the Greek papyri. A large number of ancient notes of hand have been published and of these Dr. Deissmann says, 'a stereotyped formula in these documents is the promise to pay back the borrowed money, "I will repay"; and they all are in the debtor's own hand, or, if he could not write, in the handwriting of another acting for him, with the express remark, "I have written for him"'...
"In the famous Florentine papyrus of A.D. 85, the governor of Egypt gives this order in the course of a trial,—'Let the hand-writing be crossed out,' which corresponds to the 'blotting out the hand-writing' of Col:2:14. Many such illustrations might be given, from which we see that the papyri have a distinct expository value.
"In Lexicons previous to this discovery are to be found lists of what are called hapax legomena, words which occur only once, and many of which, it was supposed, were created by the Holy Spirit for the conveyance of Christian truth, but now all or nearly all such words have been found in the papyri. The Holy Spirit did not create a special language for Christianity, but used the colloquial tongue of the time; He employed the cosmopolitan Greek" (W. Graham Scroggie, D.D., Forward to Vine's).
Cheirographon in Colossians:2:14 is not a new word inspired by the Holy Spirit for unique use here. Neither did God inspire the common interpretations of Colossians:2:14, for they are wrong. The language of Paul's time associates this word with a handwritten legal debt or a penalty owed, much like a sentence for a transgression.
The last word that we'll examine is "requirements," as in "handwriting of requirements." This comes from the Greek word, dogma, which denotes, "an opinion, (a public) decree" (Robert L. Thomas, Th.D., New American Standard Hebrew-Aramaic and Greek Dictionaries, Updated Edition, 1999). The New Living Translation paraphrase says, "He canceled the record that contained the charges against us."
In Greek society, this expression often denoted an official handwritten sentence or charge against someone for breaking a law. This helps crystallize the principle of Colossians:2:14.
Note how the Contemporary English Translation has this verse: "God wiped out the charges that were against us for disobeying the Law of Moses. He took them away and nailed them to the cross."
And the New Testament in Modern English: "Christ has utterly wiped out the damning evidence of broken laws and commandments which always hung over our heads, and has completely annulled it by nailing it over His own head on the cross."
Consider the Gospel Account of the Crucifixion
Have you ever thought to read the Gospel account of the crucifixion while addressing the question of what was nailed to the cross? Obviously, Jesus Christ was nailed to the cross on our behalf. But is that all we can learn from the expression, "nailed to the cross"? The New American Bible footnote says, "The offense of a person condemned to death by crucifixion was written on a tablet that was displayed on his cross."
Remember Matthew:27:37, "And they put up over His head the accusation written against Him: THIS IS JESUS THE KING OF THE JEWS."
The Amplified New Testament has, "They put the accusation against Him (the cause of His death)."
The New Living Translation paraphrase has, "announcing the charge against him."
And the Contemporary English Version says, "They put a sign that told why he was nailed there."
The handwriting against Jesus displayed the accusation against Him. Pilate had previously demanded to know, "Are You the King of the Jews?" (Matthew:27:11). Of course, Jesus really is the King of the Jews, and all mankind, but the Jewish religious leaders used this accusation to trap Pilate into crucifying Christ: "Whoever makes himself a king speaks against Caesar" (John:19:12). So Pilate wrote a public decree of the charge against Him.
"Now Pilate wrote a title and put it on the cross. And the writing was: JESUS OF NAZARETH, THE KING OF THE JEWS. Then many of the Jews read this title, for the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city; and it was written in Hebrew, Greek, and Latin. Therefore the chief priests of the Jews said to Pilate, 'Do not write, "The King of the Jews," but, "He said, 'I am the King of the Jews.'"' Pilate answered, 'What I have written, I have written'" (John:19:19-22).
This account ties in with Colossians:2:14, though a different Greek word, grapho, is used for "writing."
Pilate, the Romans and the Jews were unaware of the fact that Jesus took the charges that were "against us" and nailed them to the cross above His own head. They couldn't see the "spiritual inscription" that was nailed to the cross, the charges against all mankind. Perhaps Colossians:2:14 would be more understandable if the inscription read, "...having wiped out the death penalty for your sins, not His." UN